Enormous thanks to the incredible John Joseph Adams for chatting with us this month. John Joseph Adams is the editor and publisher of the magazines Nightmare and the Hugo Award-winning Lightspeed, and also is a producer for WIRED’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. He is editor of a new science fiction/fantasy imprint from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt called John Joseph Adams Books, and is the series editor of Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, as well as the editor of many other anthologies, such as Wastelands, and The Living Dead. You can learn more about him at www.johnjosephadams.com, and below, as we discuss horror, publishing, and their interesting intersections.
“I have kind of a weird relationship with horror, especially as someone who publishes a horror magazine: horror never scares me.”
You’ve edited so many anthologies you’ve been called, “the reigning king of the anthology world.” But you also edit and publish the magazines Lightspeed and Nightmare, and prior to that you worked for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Aside from the quick turnover of new material, what do the magazines satisfy in terms of your editorial interests that anthologies don’t?
Editing a short fiction magazine is essentially the purest kind of editorial curation, so it offers a lot of freedom (especially when you’re also the publisher of the magazine, since you can literally take the magazine in any direction you want to). I say it’s the purest form of curation because with an anthology, there are a lot of commercial considerations that you have to weigh to even make the anthology happen in the first place, whereas with a magazine there’s much more freedom, because there’s not a huge uptick in sales or traffic for getting a story by, say, a New York Times bestselling author, so you can fill the magazine entirely by just selecting what you consider the best of what’s submitted to you, without having to chase after specific authors to try to get them to write stories for you.
But also, a magazine offers the freedom from theme that is hard to get with an anthology. With the magazine, with there being no restriction on theme, there’s no telling what you’ll be in for each time you start reading a new story, whereas with a theme anthology, you can have a lot of variety, but due to the theme you have a better idea of what to expect.
Also, with a magazine, it’s easier to be timely, if you have a story that is resonant of something happening in the culture right now, and it’s also a lot easier, with a magazine that has an online component, to have a single story drive the conversation in the genre, since it’s much easier to get people to read something you think is great if you can just give them a link to where it is online, with no cost-barrier to entry.
What questions or interests drive the development of a new anthology? In your upcoming anthology What the #@&% is That, co-edited with Douglas Cohen, all the stories have a character who asks: “What the #@&% is that,” servicing the idea of horror being fear of the unknown. How did the project come to be and which pieces in the book best exemplify this fear?
That anthology started with my co-editor, Douglas Cohen, who was inspired to do it by a meme that was going around a couple of years ago that was making fun of an H.P. Lovecraft cover. There was a new collection of his work being released that had a nice Mike Mignola cover on it, featuring Cthulhu, and someone took the cover and retitled it What the Fuck is That? and made up some fake author blurbs and such to extend the joke.
The book actually has a bit of a complicated history otherwise, which you can read about in the introduction, but Doug was originally going to edit it with someone else, who ended up dropping out, and so Doug asked me if I wanted to co-edit with him. Once I came on board, we transitioned it from a strictly Lovecraftian book to a general-interest horror/monster book, and we also changed the “fuck” in the title to the grawlix, which gave the authors the freedom to sub in whatever word they wanted when they used the eponymous phrase in their stories. And the final thing I brought to the table personally was that Doug had initially been thinking of doing this as a Kickstarter anthology, and I said I thought we could sell it to a traditional publisher, and we did.
Perhaps the best story that exemplifies that fear is Alan Dean Foster’s story “Castleweep.” That story is just really suffused with dread. We put it last in the book because of that—because it felt like a great note to end on, and is one of those stories that will kind of haunt you for a while after finishing it. Otherwise, I think Seanan McGuire’s tale told in tweets, “#connollyhouse #weshouldntbehere,” is creepy AF, and of course I think the other stories in the anthology do a good job of capturing that as well!
You’re series editor of Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, the newest edition published on October 4, 2016. Can you talk about what makes this year’s anthology special?
Well, as always… it’s the stories that make it special! But of course, the guest editor does too—and working with Karen Joy Fowler was a real honor and pleasure. I suspect a lot of people see her as kind of an outsider or as a strange choice to serve as guest editor, but she actually got her start publishing in genre fiction, publishing stories in magazines like Asimov’s and F&SF back in the day, and her first couple novels were also published as genre books. Plus, she’s the president of the Clarion Foundation, which administers to the Clarion Writers Workshop, so in a lot of ways she was really the ideal person to serve as guest editor—really kind of the most qualified for the job any person could be who is not already a working editor in the field.
I was thrilled with the way the first volume turned out (with Joe Hill as guest editor), and the same is true of this one. I think both did a really great job of bridging that gap between literary and genre. The 2016 edition includes stories by major literary writers like Salman Rushdie and Adam Johnson—and those were both stories that genre readers likely wouldn’t have come across during their regular reading, even if they regularly read short genre fiction. (Johnson’s appeared in Harper’s and in his collection; Rushdie’s appeared in The New Yorker.) Likewise, Sofia Samatar’s story appeared in a micro press two-story chapbook that a lot of people probably hadn’t seen already. Of course there’s also stories included from genre mainstays like Lightspeed, Tor.com, F&SF, and Asimov’s, as you would expect. I think the book showcases a huge range of variety, both in terms of the types of authors, the types of stories, and the types of publications represented, which I think makes for a really interesting book.
What was it like judging the National Book Award in 2015? Did you approach the material differently than you do for your magazines and anthologies?
It was a fascinating and really cool experience. I had to approach the material at least a little bit differently, as the books I was reading were all “Young People’s Literature” (young adult, middle grade, and younger-aged books), though of course a lot of them were genre books. One of the really interesting aspects of the experience for me was how much I loved some of these books that were not genre whatsoever, and also, I usually maybe get feedback from one other person on the stuff that I’m reading editorially, but with the NBAs I had four other judges to converse with. And I’ve always kind of wanted to participate in a book club, but never have—and so this was kind of High Stakes Book Club: we’d all do our assigned reading and then periodically meet on Skype to discuss our thoughts and debate the merits (or lack thereof) of the various books under consideration.
But ultimately, I expect I was applying the same sort of curation standards that I apply to the stories for BASFF; because for both BASFF and the NBA judging, there were plenty of things that I would start and find it to be perfectly pleasant enough, but when you’re looking for the best of the best, “perfectly pleasant” isn’t good enough—anything that’s going to make it through to the next round, anything that’s going to move on to serious consideration, has got to be ASTONISHING.
The frustrating part, of course, was when the other judges disagreed with me; I’m usually free to make my final decisions about a story without any oversight, so I don’t normally have to deal with that per se! But fortunately the process was not terribly fraught overall, though all of us had some favorites that didn’t make it through to the final top ten or top five. I can’t speak for any of the other judges—because they’re other people but also I’m actually not allowed to!—but for me, the best book of the year absolutely won: Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman is mind-blowingly brilliant… an absolute classic that I feel like I will remember and treasure forever. But really, I would encourage everyone to check out our full 2015 NBA longlist, too, as all of the books on it are amazing. Plus I’d also like to give a shoutout to some of my favorites that didn’t make the longlist cut: I Crawl Through It by A.S. King, Elena Vanishing by Elena & Clare B. Dunkle, Eden West by Pete Hautman, and Flesh and Bone by William Alton, to name a few.
In retrospect, the most valuable thing about the experience was that it prepared me for (and perhaps lead to) taking on the role of editor of my own novel imprint for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, John Joseph Adams Books. Before serving as a judge, I would have told you that there was no way I’d have time to read hundreds of books during the year, on top of all of the short fiction reading I have to do. But it turns out I can, and now it looks like I’ll be continuing to do that for the foreseeable future.
This month The Masters Review is focusing on content that is dark, scary, disturbing, and grotesque—anything that comes to mind when you think of October. What do you like best about horror? What type of horror is your favorite? (Supernatural? Psychological?)
I have kind of a weird relationship with horror, especially as someone who publishes a horror magazine: horror never scares me. Nothing I read does, really—and that extends to TV and film as well. (Startling me because of a camera cut or audio cue doesn’t count as “scaring” me.)
Part of that is because so much horror is supernatural, and, as a strict atheist and a proponent of critical thinking, I just can’t find anything that I know is patently impossible to be scary. Despite that, though, to answer your question: my preference probably is for supernatural horror, even though it doesn’t actually scare me. I think it’s just because it pushes the same buttons for me that science fiction or fantasy does; it just does so more grimly.
What would you say to someone who doesn’t like horror? Which writers would you encourage them to read?
Because of the ubiquity of gory horror movies, when people think of the horror genre in literature, they frequently imagine it deals with that same kind of stories we typically see in film, full of blood and guts and generally a lot of awfulness. But literary horror is rarely like that, and the fiction in Nightmare basically never is. Nightmare tends toward “quiet horror”: that is, the stories are literary and dark—at times visceral, and at times unsettling. In other words, not overly dissimilar from the stories you’d find in Lightspeed—just more toward the darker end of the literary spectrum.
So I’d recommend any of the writers featured in Nightmare, as well as titans of the field like Stephen King. Or people specifically interested in “quite horror” might specifically check out Charles Grant; he’s the writer/editor who popularized that terminology and first identified that mode of horror writing.
What films and television shows do you think are doing a good job of producing horror that achieves more than cheap thrills and chills?
There’s a movie called Quarantine (the English-language remake of a Spanish film called REC) I really like that probably comes closest to actually unsettling me. I think it’s partly because it uses a first-person camera POV, and it works surprisingly well—they even do a good job of having it make sense that the camera stays on the whole time. (As opposed to Cloverfield, which frequently had people wondering why the characters didn’t just drop the camera and run.) REC is worthwhile too, and you could argue it’s a better film; overall I like Quarantine better, because it presents the plot as a science fiction plot, while REC present it as a paranormal one.
I’m actually always woefully behind on movies, so I haven’t seen a lot of the recent crop of horror films people have been talking about in recent years, like The Babadook or It Follows and the like. But on my podcast, The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy, we did a panel discussion about a bunch of recent horror movies, if one were so inclined to go listen to that. In that I talked up The Bay and Pontypool, which are both great movies.
I’m not sure if it’s strictly horror, per se, but I really liked Penny Dreadful. Though I have to say I’m not sure I can really recommend it because the series finale was terrible—like Battlestar Galactica / Lost terrible; on the other hand, there were some really amazing episodes during its run and overall I’m glad I watched it. (Maybe just don’t watch the last episode, which is also what I tell people about BSG.)
Otherwise, on TV, I think Black Mirror is a contender here; even though it’s obviously primarily a science fiction show, it’s really dark, and frequently delivers the chills (but they’re not cheap whatsoever).
What are some of your favorite horror stories and why?
I think my favorite horror story ever is a non-supernatural story: “Guts” by Chuck Palahniuk. It doesn’t scare me either, but it certainly evokes a feeling of horror as you’re reading it; even after having read it numerous times, I still find myself having a physical reaction to the horribleness depicted in the story as I read it—like I actually physically cringe when reading it.
I tend to think of horror as more of a adjectival-genre than a genre in its own—i.e., horrific fantasy, horrific mystery, etc. But “Guts” is a story that sort of argues against that kind of taxonomy—what is it if not solely horror?
Leaving aside stories I, as editor, published originally: “This Year’s Class Picture” by Dan Simmons and “Calcutta, Lord of Nerves” by Poppy Z. Brite (both of which I reprinted in The Living Dead) and “Snow, Glass, Apples” by Neil Gaiman (reprinted in By Blood We Live) are really fantastic; I also really love “Other People” and “Feminine Endings” by Neil. “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. One of my all-time favorites is “Descending” by Thomas M. Disch. Any number of stories by Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Peter Straub, Clive Barker of course.
You worked in science fiction and fantasy before opening Nightmare. How much of an intersection to see in the two genres? I suppose I’m asking you to comment on genre lines, which are becoming more and more fluid and less and less important, but I’m interested to know from someone who is familiar with so much content if you see any interesting intersections between the two.
You might be surprised how often it happens that a writer submits a story to Nightmare but I end up taking it for Lightspeed instead, or vice-versa. I think the lines have always been pretty fluid, and they certainly are now…at least for me as editor; ask another editor and they might tell you something different—everyone has their own thoughts where these kind of boundaries lie (and whether or not the boundaries are important at all).
For my part, I launched Nightmare mainly because I was seeing so much good dark material submitted to Lightspeed, that I couldn’t realistically publish it all if Lightspeed was going to remain a general interest science fiction/fantasy magazine—i.e., one that does not have a specific “dark” focus.
When I started Lightspeed in 2010, I was just the editor; about 18 months later, I also became the publisher of both it and Fantasy Magazine. Once I did that, one of the first things I did was merge Fantasy into Lightspeed (which was previously science fiction only), making Lightspeed twice the size it had been previously. I did that in part because while not everyone who reads genre fiction likes science fiction and fantasy equally the venn diagram overlaps almost completely—at least for short fiction readers who are likely to enjoy the sort of science fiction and fantasy I tend to publish. (That venn diagram would likely be very different if you polled, say, Analog readers.)
So while I felt like those two audiences did have that near-total overlap, I did not feel like that was true for horror—that the horror and SF/F readership did not have that same level of overlap. So that’s why it seemed warranted to me to launch Nightmare as its own magazine, rather than just incorporating a horror category into Lightspeed.
Was I right? Well, I’m not sure. I go back and forth on it pretty often. Lightspeed is certainly much more popular than Nightmare—so it seems like I was right to some degree, though there are a lot of factors at play here. While on the one hand, you could say that if the audience overlap was close to 100%, then of course Nightmare would have about the same number of subscribers as Lightspeed and it would get about the same number of pageviews on the website every month—but that’s not true, and in fact it’s not even close. On the other hand, you could say, well maybe JJA just isn’t that good at picking horror stories, or (more kindly) the larger audience who wants to consume horror fiction doesn’t have the same taste in dark fiction that JJA does.
So yes, given I could probably publish a lot of Nightmare’s content in Lightspeed without anyone really raising an eyebrow, and several Lightspeed stories could go either way, I’d say there are definitely lots of interesting intersections!
Interviewed by Kim Winternheimer